Some Words with Rachel Sandalow-Ash on inclusion, debate, and Open Hillel

By Yonit Friedman

Originally posted on allthesedays.org, on January 7th, 2015.

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Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a senior at Harvard University, is the Internal Coordinator for Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that promotes inclusive and open dialogue about Israel-Palestine in university campus Hillels. She first became involved with All That’s Left in the summer of 2013, while interning for Shatil through the New Israel Fund.

Disclaimer: Rachel’s views, as expressed in this interview, are her own. They are not representative of Open Hillel. 


At the Open Hillel conference at Harvard University in October 2014, Rachel Sandalow-Ash scanned the crowd of 350 people. “This,” she remarked, “doesn’t look like just a small group of radical activists.” Despite her not-so-subtle jab at Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, Sandalow-Ash, a founder of Open Hillel, is a product of institutional American Judaism. Growing up, she attended the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, Massachusetts, as well as Jewish summer camps. Before college, she didn’t think too much about broadening the Jewish conversation about Israel-Palestine, as Open Hillel aims to do. Between the right-wing Zionist politics of her day school, and her parents, who she describes as “J-Street-y,” she believed that issues related to Israel-Palestine “would cause a lot of controversy, so [she] shouldn’t talk about them."

With this controversy in mind, Rachel did not enter Harvard looking to work on issues related to Israel-Palestine. She was already involved with labor activism and environmental justice activism, and joined the Progressive Jewish Alliance at Harvard Hillel. She saw the PJA as “a place to bond with people who shared my political ideals and also my upbringing …we would, you know, do feminist Shabbat and have progressive Passover Seders.” It was around this time that the PJA, in collaboration with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, planned an event to host several anti-occupation Jewish activists, who would speak about their work protesting home demolitions in the West Bank. The two groups wanted to host the event in Hillel, both because the activists would speak about their work in relation to their Judaism, and because the event was geared towards participants in that winter’s Birthright trip who wanted to learn about how to extend their stay and gain a broader, more critical view of Israel-Palestine.  

Although the PJA had historically cosponsored events with both Harvard Hillel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee, once donors got wind of the two groups’ names together on a poster, they threatened to pull funding from Harvard Hillel if they hosted the event in their building. The PJA, who “didn’t think it was fair to have a discussion about the occupation without Palestinians there,” elected to hold the event in a different campus space, outside of Hillel.  

This was Sandalow-Ash’s first exposure to the strength of Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership regarding Israel. As stated on their website: 

  “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

  • Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;
  • Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel;
  • Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;
  • Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”[1]


Upon realizing that these restrictions effectively ban any sort of inter-group dialogue with Palestinian organizations or individuals (since most Palestinian solidarity groups advocate at least some form of BDS,) Sandalow-Ash, along with Emily Unger and the PJA, founded Open Hillel. Since 2012, three Hillels (Wesleyan, Vassar, and Swarthmore) have declared themselves to be Open, stating that they will no longer abide by Hillel’s Standards of Partnership. 


When asked why she chooses to work to effect change within Hillel, rather that working to strengthen established anti-occupation groups, Sandalow-Ash suggests that “it’s better to work within your own community…I am an American Jewish college student. I wanted to create change in American Jewish spaces on college campuses.” Although she strongly opposes the occupation, she recognizes that, from both an ethical and a practical sense, there is little she can do to actually change things on the ground in Israel-Palestine. “The conflict needs to be solved by Israelis and Palestinians,” she says. “I have opinions about what they should do…but really, I think that what I care about most is where my own community stands on this, and I do not want [my] community to be bound in eternal wedlock to Bibi Netanyahu.” 

Such a statement might imply strong support for groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace or the newer If Not Now. While Sandalow-Ash does agree with many of the ideals of these organizations, she insists that Open Hillel works towards an entirely different goal. JVP and If Not Now take a strong stance against the occupation and encourage American Jewish institutions to do the same; Open Hillel “just calls on these institutions to be a little more neutral.” Her own political opinions aside, she is adamant that “Open Hillel does not aim to end the occupation; Open Hillel, as a movement, does not take political positions on Israel-Palestine.” Although she jokes that Open Hillel is “the most moderate thing [she’s] ever worked on,” she points out that “The American Jewish Community is so far to one side…that neutrality would be a really big change. [We’re] asking for acknowledgement that it’s equally valid to advocate against the occupation in Jewish spaces” as it is to, for example, send money over the Green Line (as the Jewish Federation has done since 2002.)

This call for neutrality, however, was met with skepticism from those on the right. Many critics fear that openness is a ruse to flip the narrative and make Hillels less friendly to Zionists, at a time when Jews, both on and off American campuses, have faced anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism. This opposition was particularly evident at the Open Hillel conference in October 2014: although the conference organizers invited representatives from dozens of right-wing organizations, including AIPAC, all these organizations refused to attend, citing a fear of “legitimizing” dialogue with non-Zionists. Sandalow-Ash calls this fear “a real shame…[because] they’re not only not engaging with a bunch of Jews, but they’re not engaging with most Palestinians, which is really scary, because [if] we can’t have Jewish-Palestinian dialogue over here in America, how are they supposed to talk to each other over there?” 

Sandalow-Ash believes that this Jewish institutional fear of dialogue and criticism is self-defeating. Whether Eric Fingerhut likes it or not, many young Jews find the Israeli occupation morally reprehensible. If Hillel International wants to remain relevant, they should concern themselves less with maintaining a Zionist echo chamber, and more with engaging students, even in their disagreement, as is the age-old Jewish tradition. Sandalow-Ash points out,

“It’s funny, [critics] always say ‘you’re supporting disengagement with Israel,’ but no! Quite the opposite! This is engagement! This is about bringing those difficult questions that involve real, critical engagement with Israel, not just…that uncritical celebration of how great it was to climb Masada on Birthright…Including a wide variety of perspectives in Hillel will create a richer, more vibrant Jewish community, and a richer Jewish discourse around Israel. It absolutely needs to happen here; if not, Jews will just leave Hillel. And for everyone who’s freaking out about how Jews are assimilating, or that we’re going to fade away into dust, well, stop pushing us away. Stop pushing away people who want to be a part of this community, but don’t feel like they can be their intellectual and political selves in Jewish spaces.” 


In this era of Pew-study-induced pessimism over Jewish community and continuity, many supporters see Open Hillel as an effort to convince institutional Jewish authorities to value inclusivity over adhering to the proverbial party line. Sandalow-Ash, however, envisions the ultimate goal of Open Hillel as ending reliance on these very authorities. Right now, she explains, 
 

“We’re a campaign with a specific goal…I want us to abolish the Standards of Partnership…[but] there will still be immense donor pressure on campus Hillels coming from the Jewish Federations not to hold certain types of programming. The real challenge here is to bring Jewish life on campuses back into the hands of the students, and away from wealthy, out-of-touch donors, which is the challenge of American life as a whole.”


Sandalow-Ash shudders at the thought of her future children having to deal with censorship in Hillel and elsewhere in their Jewish lives. It is clear that, for all the times her opponents have called her and her Open Hillel colleagues self-hating Jews, she cares too much about the future of Jewish life on college campuses and beyond to settle for anything less than a Judaism that asks hard questions, welcomes debate, and is inclusive to all.


Yonit Rose Friedman is an actor, playwright, and activist living in Brooklyn. If you want to collaborate with her, she can be reached at yonitrf@gmail.com


[1] “Hillel Israel Guidelines” http://www.hillel.org/jewish/hillel-israel/hillel-israel-guidelines